Envy in the Digital Age

Envy is often misunderstood. I suspect many of us today are apt to confuse it somewhat with Greed. Both, it seems, boil down to wanting more stuff, so that Envy would seem to designate merely the sub-set of cases in which someone else already has the stuff that you want (and perhaps their having it is what prompts your wanting it). 

But the presence of the other in Envy is not incidental: where Greed is primarily about the self, Envy is primarily about the other person. When I fall into Greed, I want something because I want to be sufficient all on my own; I want to store up treasures for myself, heedless of whether anyone around me is needy or also prospering. When I fall into Envy, I know that I'm not sufficient on my own, that my worth is relative, determined by the worth of those around me. Accordingly, I don't just happen to want something that someone else has, I want it because they have it, or more properly, I don't want them to have it because they have it and I don't. Aquinas highlights this essentially social character of Envy by noting that "envy grieves for another's good" primarily "insofar as it conduces to the lessening of one's own good name or excellence" (ST IIaIIae Q. 36 a. 1 resp.).

In one respect, this makes Envy less corrupt than Greed. Economists are often liable to look down upon our propensity to assess ourselves in relative social terms rather than in terms of absolute material well-being. The poor member of a poor tribal community is likely to feel much more well-off than a modern American who lacks a car and refrigerator. But this, far from being necessarily pathological, is a recognition that we are social creatures, and our most durable goods are those that are shared. Envy, unlike Greed, still recognizes this, but it perverts it, and does so in a way that can make it far more sinister than Greed.

Envy reasons that is it better for all to thrive together than for one to thrive alone. But it goes further: if all cannot thrive together, then all should suffer together. To be sure, I might most prefer to get your promotion revoked and have it offered to me instead, but if I can't get that, I'd rather that neither of us got it. This destructive impulse of envy is memorably illustrated in the famous story of King Solomon and the two prostitutes: the aggrieved and envious mother would happily settle for two dead babies rather than her rival continuing to enjoy a living child. Greed wants too much of a good thing; Envy, beginning from the good of sociality, soon turns against any good altogether, with terrifying consequences.

Consider the tragedy Othello, among many famous literary illustrations of envy, in which first Iago's and then Othello's envy leads them not to try to recover the desired good for themselves (promotion in Iago's case, Desdemona in Othello's), but to destroy any goods that others might enjoy, and in the end themselves. A deadly sin indeed.

Of course, Aquinas notes that sometimes this grief can spur us on to greater zeal (as the athlete trains harder after losing to his rival), and by this means, avoid the vice of Envy. However, too often we merely burn in our discontent or plot the other's downfall. Aquinas also perceptively notes that envy is usually not directed toward those high above us, or with whom we have nothing in common, since "a man is envious of those only whom he wishes to rival or surpass in reputation" (ST IIa IIae Q. 36 a. 1 ad 2).

To envy someone, I need to be able to readily imagine myself in their place, and to want to be in that place. The popular indignation of the Occupy Wall Street movement, then, is not easily characterized as a matter of Envy, as it has often carelessly been, since few of us can imagine, or would even want, $50 million/yr. salaries. No, the place to look for envy is among the ordinary relationships of friends, family, and coworkers, and envy is often the strongest when the least is at stake: the fleeting appearance of parental favoritism, the trifling compliment paid to a friend's fashion sense, the little inequity in end-of-year bonuses.

* * *

So what does all this have to do with our digital age? Well, we are told that this new digital world is making all of us more connected, more social. Social media dominates our lives. Even if it can easily be perverted to anti-social, self-gratifying purposes, it does serve as a genuine means of fostering and multiplying relationships. Little wonder, then, that with the explosion of the "social," we should find this quintessentially social vice of Envy rearing its ugly head. Part of the problem is simply that we are likely to have many more "friends," or at least acquaintances, than we would have had before. If it is our friends whom we are most likely to envy, most likely to compare ourselves with and to compete for reputation with, then the more we have, and the more whose accomplishments we keep track of, the more occasions we will have for envy. 

But the problem is bigger than that, for we all know that most of these "friends" are not friends in the full sense. Of course, it is very possible to be consumed with envy toward a close friend, and yet since Envy's opposite is the virtue of Charity, we are more likely to genuinely rejoice in the good fortune of those we truly love. But when it comes to those whom we know well enough to call "friends," but toward whom we feel few bonds of affection, we will find little reason to rejoice in their blessings, and if we are already disposed to be ill-content with our lot, we will find their good fortune an intolerable annoyance. So it is with the multitude of pseudo-friends whose new children, new cars, new houses, new jobs, new books (if you're an academic) we see chronicled on Facebook.

And it gets worse. I noted above that Envy thrives on the relative erasure of difference. The petty differences that really get under our skin are only noticeable between those who see themselves as roughly equal. In democracies, then, Envy is ironically likely to be a much more dangerous vice than in highly stratified societies—and modern social media is nothing if not democratic. On Facebook and even more on Twitter, I can befriend or "follow" people whom I would never dare to approach in public, and can even barge into their conversations; they, for their part, may without hesitation make me privy to their inner thoughts, daily struggles, and pictures from their daughter's birthday party. Suddenly, within the digital world, I can imagine a far wider range of people as occupying my same basic social plane than I could ever have done before. But of course, this is somewhat illusory: many of them are still decades older than me, far more educated and accomplished, far more highly paid and respected, than I could ever reasonably expect to be. And yet, by identifying them as part of my social circle, I may find myself subconsciously comparing myself to them and wondering why my life can't be as good as theirs.

Two more factors warrant consideration. Envy thrives on the concrete: that extra birthday gift, that over-the-top compliment, that extra $500 bonus. Our media programmers know this; or rather, they know that vanity thrives on the concrete, and Envy is a by-product of this. We can readily tabulate how many "likes," how many comments, how many "favorites," how many "retweets" or "repins" our friend's status/picture/tweet/post received, versus how many ours received. To the envious heart, each one of these little icons of approval is a red-hot poker, stoking the burning fire of bitterness and envy. The envious heart will masochistically store up each painful reminder of the other's success, tabulating them and rehearsing them, until it seems like the whole world is conspiring against it. Envy, of course, will always find ways of doing it, but our modern-day programmers have made its job that much easier. 

Finally, we should note that envy is not really provoked by another person's good, so much as another person's perceived good. It doesn't really matter whether your friend is actually richer or better-looking than you, only that you can imagine them so. And of course, Envy always has a fertile imagination; the grass is always greener on the other side. But again, our modern social media make its job easier, by widening the gap between perception and reality. The digital world affords us wonderful opportunities to curate our self-presentation, sharing only our happiest, wittiest, best-looking moments with the world. This results in a situation where almost anyone can look around on Facebook and plausibly conclude that everyone else is having a better life. Sometimes we are even self-aware and malicious enough to use this power of social media to deliberately stoke envy, to present ourselves or our achievements in such a way as we know will make others feel inferior. 

Of course, all these dangers of our digital age do not create envy; they are mere occasions for the envious heart. But given that we all have hearts prone to envy, that is perhaps little comfort. And like all vices, Envy is self-reinforcing. If we begin to habitually grieve at the successes of others, we will find it harder and harder not to do so almost automatically. 

Thankfully, there is a very simple solution to Envy—in principle, at least, although still a lifelong struggle. We are not wrong to seek our worth and identity in relation to others. Too much modern psychobabble tells us this is the root of our problems, and we need to "believe in ourselves" and cultivate "self-esteem." That solution is as deadly as the disease. But we are wrong to imagine that we can accurately gauge our worth in relation to other creatures. No, it is by recognizing ourselves as first and foremost children of God that we vanquish any twinge of envy. This affords us at the same time a basis for the most radical humility and gratitude, and for a radical self-confidence, knowing that we are loved and esteemed by the One whose opinion matters far more than the human barometer of popularity. 

Bradford Littlejohn is President of the Davenant Institute and a Se- nior Fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation. He is the author of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty, along with numerous other es- says and articles on Reformation political theology. He lives in Leesburg, VA with his wife, Rachel, and four boisterous children.

Related Links

"Psalm 73: For the Soul Sick with Envy" by John Hartley

"Begin Your Day With Thanksgiving" by Grant Van Leuven

"Sodom's Great Sin?" by Aaron Denlinger

A Place to Belong by Megan Hill

Growing in Grace, edited by Joel Beeke

Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in December of 2014 as part of the "The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age" series. Check out the other posts below:

  1. Lust
  2. Gluttony
  3. Greed
  4. Sloth
  5. Envy
  6. Wrath
  7. Pride